Frank Borzage | Subjects | Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style | Rankings | Biography

Films: Secrets | Lazybones | Lucky Star | A Farewell to Arms | Man's Castle | No Greater Glory | Shipmates Forever | Green Light | Big City | Mannequin | Three Comrades | The Mortal Storm | Flight Command | Stage Door Canteen | Screen Directors Playhouse: Day Is Done

Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors) | Mathematics and Visual Style | 1910's Articles

Frank Borzage

Frank Borzage directed many Hollywood films. He is the subject of books:

Please see also Posts from a_film_by (2003), archived and partly written by Fred Camper.

Frank Borzage: Subjects

Some common subjects in the films of Frank Borzage: Institutions: Failings and corruption: Leaving home: Science, technology and engineering: Attacks on Science: Light and technology: Transportation: Illness: Minorities: Times of day: Animals: Food: Water: Music:

Frank Borzage: Structure and Story Telling

Story Telling: Finales: Influences:

Frank Borzage: Visual Style

Settings and props: Camera Angles: Masking: Silhouettes: Geometry: Depth staging: Camera movement: Costumes:


Here are ratings for various films directed by Frank Borzage. Everything at least **1/2 is recommended. The ratings go from one to four stars. All of these films are ones I've seen.

If you are new to Borzage, Lucky Star and The Mortal Storm are two key dramas.

These Posts from a_film_by (2003) give other scholars' choices of Borzage's best films. I have learned from all of them.

Films, silent (1915-1929):

Films, sound (1930-1961): Screen Director's Playhouse (television series) (1955-1956):


I have read in old interviews that Frank Borzage, like Lubitsch, acted out all the roles for the performers - then told the actors to do it that way. This method of direction is now terribly unfashionable. But given the results, Borzage (and Lubitsch) got, maybe it should be revived.

Little known fact: Borzage and Raoul Walsh were friends when they worked at Fox in the early 30's. Source: interview with Raoul Walsh, 1972.

AMC used to show reruns of the old This Is Your Life TV program from the 1950's. One starred actor Jean Hersholt, broadcast April 28, 1954. The show listed all of Hersholt's charitable and service activities: they were astonishing! No wonder there is a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award each year at the Oscars. Towards the end of the show, the host said, here is your old friend Frank Borzage! Out came the middle-aged Borzage, who said a few pleasant words to Hersholt. It is just a glimpse, but there is surviving footage of Borzage.

The TV series Screen Directors Playhouse featured both Frank Borzage and Allan Dwan, among many other directors. The episode High Air (1956), directed by Dwan, closes with a Coming Attraction of next week's show. This footage shows Borzage directing. The footage is silent. It depicts Borzage acting out the performance of a woman he is directing. He shows her how to go down on her knees, and then act. Undoubtedly the actors and Borzage have picked out a scene that can come across in silent footage. This is a valuable look at Borzage directing.


Secrets (1924) is a soap opera. It shows four different eras in a woman's life, concentrating on her relationship with her husband. It's like an "anthology" films, with different episodes.

The relentless suffering the heroine experiences is hard to take. This is an old fashioned soap opera, one in which the protagonist suffers and suffers. The film's entertainment or artistic qualities seem few.

Leading man Eugene O'Brien had played in support of star Norma Talmadge in a number of films. I thought Eugene O'Brien was remarkably bland and uninteresting. He is much less likable than other men who served as support for star actresses, such as Conrad Nagel and George Brent.

The middle section unexpectedly has Western aspects. This recalls Borzage's Westerns of the 1910's. The hero gets what looks like a black leather vest, reminding one of the cowboy leather gear in Borzage's early Westerns.

The IMDb says that the Western scenes take place in Wyoming. However, I don't recall Wyoming being mentioned in the print I saw. However, this surviving print is missing many scenes. A Wyoming frontier location is plausible: the story likely takes place in a remote region where there is not yet any law and order.

The IMDb says that the heroine and her husband dealt with "Indian attacks". These do NOT show up in the available print. Instead, it shows the couple fighting a vicious outlaw gang - who are all white, like the rest of the cast.


Lazybones (1925) is a look at sexual repression and small town life. It is based on Owen Davis' 1924 stage play.

While there is a censor-placating marriage ceremony for Ruth (Zazu Pitts in a great performance), this is a thinly disguised look at the problems faced by unwed mothers and illegitimate children. It recalls Way Down East (D. W. Griffith, 1920). The negative look at small town life, and the wasted lives full of pain of rejected people who live there, also recall True Heart Susie (D. W. Griffith, 1919).

Living in Institutions

The small town is an institution, that controls all aspects of its inhabitants' marriages, sexual lives and child rearing. It and its sexual mores are nightmarish, and have little relationship to the reality of people's feelings.

The hero and his girlfriend are not just a private couple. They also have to deal with all public views of the hero and the baby he is raising.

The River

The river becomes a powerful metaphor for the characters' lives, near the start of the film. They are swept up in it, just as they are swept up in life. The lazy hero shows his only dynamism in these scenes.

At the end, the hero gets back in touch with reality, painful as it is, when he wades into the river.

The dam is a geometric environment, like the lumber yard in No Greater Glory. Both are rectilinear. Both have regularly repeating elements: the sluices in the dam, the boards in the lumber yard.

The walkway on the dam is one of the bridges Borzage liked. In the background is that Borzage favorite, an outdoor staircase.

The pavilion on the river at the end, is another Borzage building with clear walls.

Cars and the Garage: High Technology

Frank Borzage's heroes love technology. The hero's main passion is tinkering with his car. Unfortunately, he never does anything serious with this interest, unlike later Borzage heroes who become engineers or scientists.

The hero's car links him to high technology and progress in the opening scenes. By contrast, his well-dressed, well-to-do rival drives a lavish horse-and-buggy. This suggests that respectability and social prominence are linked to backward, anti-progress forces. (See also the stifling old-fashioned Victorianism and upper middle class atmosphere of the aunt's parlor, where the hero feels oppressed in Moonrise.)

Kit and her boyfriend eventually open a garage, while the hero is away at war. Such garages, run by the heroes of later Borzage films, are a principal locale of Borzage's cinema: Big City, Three Comrades. They too are signs of technological modernity.

Politics and Capitalism

Sexual repression in Lazybones is not just a moral issue. It is designed to preserve the "respectability" of the man who becomes the town banker. A proper image for this man, is considered more important than the feelings of Ruth or her daughter. This links sexual repression to capitalism.

To be fair, the banker is not the enforcer of this code: Ruth's mother is. The banker is unlikable, but he is never a villain. As far as I can tell, the banker never learns about the child. However, there are also suggestions he does not try hard to find out.

During the World War I sequence, a German soldier hails the American hero as "Kamerad". One suspects a reference to left-wing politics. Once again, the hero fails to follow up on any left-wing political ideas. He wastes his contact with the outside world.

The hero is one of many Borzage men who wind up in uniform.

Camera Movement

There are two notable Point-Of-View camera movements, showing standing people at the hero's farm from a moving vehicle. First we see the mother, standing in the background of the farm, from people moving past. Then devastatingly, there is a second later shot, showing the unwed mother moving past the farm and her baby.


The hero's costume has Borzagean features: The comedy of the hero getting dressed up in his store clothes for the big party, gets repeated with variations in Three Comrades. In both films, the hero struggles with ill fitting clothes.

Influence on Later Films

The heroine's monster mother is first seen riding a bicycle through the country lanes. One suspects that this is where King Vidor got the imagery of the Wicked Witch riding her bicycle at the start of The Wizard of Oz.

Lucky Star

Lucky Star (1929) is about a veteran who is disabled in World War I. It offers a highly sympathetic portrait of the disabled.

Lucky Star was made in both silent and part-sound versions. Today, only the silent version apparently survives. This review is of the silent version.


Frank Borzage heroes are often scientists or engineers. The working class hero of Lucky Star is not an engineer, but he is involved with technology. In the first part of the film, he is a skilled telephone line repairman. He anticipates later films about such workers: Later, he becomes a repairman of mechanical objects. These include a phonograph player he gives to the heroine, anticipating later Borage heroes who give appliances to their wives, such as the radio in Big City.

The hero of Lucky Star gives the world sound communication: earlier, he clears up phone lines so that messages can get through. And he repairs the record player. This role seems symbolic: the hero is spreading information and music in his society.

The hero, who does high tech work on high above the ground (on phone lines), anticipates the construction workers on the bridge in Borzage's Stranded, who also work at great heights on technical projects. The bridge helps to connect society, just like the hero's work enabling phone lines to send messages.

The hero repairs a lamp, and causes it to shine out several times. He is linked to light. The hero has a work bench where he does repair.

The hero's town has a train station. Borzage loved trains.

One of the sinister explosions in Borzage attacks the hero's wagon in World War I, and damages his legs.

The Villain

The villain has some sinister characteristics that recur in other Borzage films:


The hero's house has moveable parts: the swinging double door; the rope and bucket device he rigs up to get water. The device is controlled remotely by rope, like the overhead panel in Man's Castle.

The device is also one of the technological gizmos in Borzage's films.

The hero's house is near water: always a constant interest in Borzage. There is a small bridge over the water: perhaps symbolizing the way the hero's work "connects society together".

The heroine's farm house has the outdoor staircases Borzage likes.

Influence of Sunrise

The heroine's farm house recalls the rural buildings in Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927). Both have similar architecture, with peaked roofs. Like Lucky Star, Sunrise was shot on giant studio sets. Both were made at the same studio, Fox.

The lanterns in the early morning opening of Lucky Star, recall the night scene at the end of Sunrise.

Sunrise had a strong influence on films of its era. See Tag Gallagher's book John Ford: The Man and His Movies (1986) for a discussion of the influence of Murnau and Sunrise on John Ford and Frank Borzage (pp 49-54).


Even in 1929, people realized that line repairmen's gear was cool. The hero's outfit is spectacular.

Borzage films often have their heroes in funny hats. The hero's hats are nowhere as odd as in some Borzage films, but still are striking:

A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms (1932) is a romantic drama, set against the disaster of World War I.

The nursing unit is one of several institutions in Frank Borzage, that control people's romantic lives and marriages. People do not have private lives: their lives are negotiated through the institution.

Aviation plays a role in many Borzage films. Here we see airplanes bombing civilians: a sinister sight.

Links to Lazybones

A Farewell to Arms has many links to Borzage's earlier Lazybones. Both center on women who have secret pregnancies. Both look at the world of unwed motherhood, although plot gimmicks preserve marriage vows for the sake of the censor.

There are also connections between their heroes:

Links to Stranded

The hero was an architecture student before the war. This anticipates the bridge building hero of Stranded.

As in c, we have a pair of professionals in love: in A Farewell to Arms an ambulance driver and a nurse. In both films, both characters' work is treated with respect.

The Priest

The sympathetically presented priest (Jack La Rue) is shown having intense feelings of friendship for the hero. At the end of their first scene, the priest stares directly after hero Cooper as he leaves. One suspects that the priest might be one of many gay friends in love with the hero in Borzage.

Camera Movement

Camera movement is rich and ornate, throughout A Farewell to Arms. There is a famous Point-Of-View shot, showing the hospital ceiling as the hero is wheeled in on his back.

The sidewalk-arcade long take starts out at the restaurant, then makes a right turn as the hero and heroine leave. Then it follows them in front, as they walk down the arcade.


The giant hospital foyer near the start has glass doors with curving tops, in the background. They are hung overhead with curtains with scalloped circular edges. This scene is the subject of a striking camera movement, following the hero in.

The nurses are rolling cylindrical bandages, when they are listening in the opening scene. There is also a sort of transom, with an arched top.

The hero and heroine have their first love scene, near a circular fountain. It anticipates the shallow pools in the greenhouse in No Greater Glory.

At least twice, spiral metal work is seen on buildings in the street.

The container with the hero's cheese is circular, inside a square.

The ceiling seen in the Point-Of-View camera movement, is richly curved. So are the walls of the room, in the subsequent POV shots.

When the hero and heroine walk on the street, they pass through an arcade. It has a series of circular arches they pass under. The restaurant where they sit at the start, has a protruding circular sign, that juts out into the arcade. The arcade is a geometric environment.

Man's Castle

Man's Castle (1933) is a Depression era romance.

The opening of Man's Castle recalls Lazybones. While the hero is not actually asleep, he is shown in a condition of idleness, feeding pigeons in the park. He soon meets a heroine as desperate as the Zazu Pitts character in Lazybones. The hero helps the heroine instinctively, just like the hero of Lazybones.

We switch to a restaurant scene, anticipating Three Comrades. There is a circular ice cream desert, piled high, like the circular platters of chops in the wedding banquet in Three Comrades.

The hero makes a public speech about politics in the restaurant. This anticipates the political speaker on the streets of Germany in Three Comrades.

The baseball team coach is a kid who acts like a grown-up. This anticipates the more elaborate metaphor about kids and war in No Greater Glory. This is a very funny scene, a high light of the rich humor that runs through Man's Castle.

The minister performs an unofficial wedding, recalling the similar wedding in A Farewell to Arms. In both films, this is a religious service, that ties the characters together in the sight of God, but which has no legal status. In both films, the characters are already sleeping together, before the ceremony.


The toy figurines at the toy factory recall the puppet theater in A Farewell to Arms. The toys make music, just like the puppets seem to sing opera. There are also the strange toy figures sold by the street peddler, seen briefly at start of Mannequin.

The factory is fully wired with burglar alarms, that communicate with the police. Borzage films often recognize the existence of high technology of their time.


When the couple leave the restaurant near the start, we see it is one of Borzage's geometrical environments. It has arches and curving alcoves, recalling some of the hospital scenes in A Farewell to Arms.

The overhead panel that opens up to the sky, is one of Borzage's movable architecture components. It recalls the gate in Lazybones and the manhole cover in 7th Heaven. These are often used to make kinetic displays. They also play on-going roles in the story and characterization.

The night watchman's office is one of many rooms in Borzage with glass walls. It recalls the inner office at the garage in Big City.

The store window with the stove is also a glass-walled area. We see both from outside and inside this window.

No Greater Glory

No Greater Glory (1934) is an anti-war allegory, about boys playing soldier. It has some good points, about the insidious appeal of militarism. Unfortunately, it is really downbeat and depressing.

Frank Borzage would later follow another illness among poor people in Europe, in Three Comrades.


The construction of the apartment house at the end of No Greater Glory, recalls a bit the building of the bridge in Stranded. Even before the construction starts, the lumber yard also recalls such building zones, as locale surrounding the bridge going up in Stranded.

No Greater Glory also recalls another film set in a lumber yard, Who Pays?: Toil and Tyranny (Harry Harvey, 1915). This starred future director Henry King, giving a charismatic performance. How likely is it, that there could be any influence of a 1915 film on a 1934 one? I'm not sure. Both films are somber, socially conscious dramas. Both also include a serious illness.

The lumber yard is notably geometric. We see both individual piles of wood, with regularly jutting boards, and also multiple piles of wood arranged in grids.

Male Bonding

No Greater Glory has nearly an all-male cast, aside from the Mother. Inevitably, this is going to produce some male bonding. Still, rival gang leader Feri Ats (Frankie Darro) develops quite an admiration for the hero. Is Feri Ats a gay character? If so, he would anticipate the chef in History Is Made at Night, also a man in love with the film's hero. Similarly, Sgt. Thornhill (Pat O'Brien) seems to be in love with the hero (Dick Powell) in Flirtation Walk.

Does the hero's strong desire to conform and fit in with other guys, have any gay motivations? It is not clear.

The hero of Shipmates Forever fails to fit in with the other naval students. Unlike the boy in No Greater Glory, this does not bother him - although it upsets other people in the movie. Also, the hero of Flight Command fails to fit in with his new naval unit.

Links to Sunrise

The scenes at the botanical garden at night recall a film that influenced Borzage, Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927). Both films show rowboats moving over water at night. Both water scenes show people hunting for a person, using lanterns.

The glass-walled greenhouse in the botanical garden, also recalls the glass-walled cafe and dance halls in Sunrise. Borzage would go on to include the glass-walled garage in Big City.

Shipmates Forever

Shipmates Forever (1935) is a combination of musical and Navy drama.

Three of the best scenes in Shipmates Forever have a similar structure. They have the cadets lined up in a row, while the camera moves down the row. These scenes' subject matter:

  1. Taking the oath of allegiance to the Constitution.
  2. Being tested for physical strength, with unusual machines.
  3. Being inspected, for their appearance and posture.
I thought the oath-taking scene was especially powerful. It still has a lesson for us today: the importance of defending Democracy.

Green Light

A Scientist Hero - and Stranded

Green Light (1937) is a medical drama. It resembles Frank Borzage's Stranded, in that it is about a man who has big technological or scientific ambitions. The hero of Stranded wants to build a huge bridge; the hero of Green Light tries to find a cure for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

Green Light also has a big construction project. While Stranded was about bridge building, in Green Light we briefly see a dam that had to be abandoned mid-construction to to the plague of fever. The dam serves as a powerful metaphor for all the ambitions interrupted by the Depression, or other major human failings. The delay in construction also illustrates the theme of waiting for the "green light": the signal to go ahead.

Both bridges and dams, being public works, were also programs supported more by liberals than conservatives in the 1930's.

The doctor treats the poor in the mountains for free. This complements the subject in other Borzage films, of poor people struggling to raise money for medical care.

The Minister

Like the hero of Lucky Star, the minister in Green Light is a disabled man who walks on crutches. Both lead lives of value and contribute to society. Both provide moral leadership to others.

Both men are associated in a positive way with communication technology:

Errol Flynn

Errol Flynn had recently played a doctor in Captain Blood (Michael Curtiz, 1935). He was also an idealistic social crusader in that movie. Both aspects of this characterization persist in Green Light. Admittedly, Captain Blood is a historical swashbuckler, not a modern-day realistic film like Green Light.

We also see some instances of Flynn's bedside manner, both in the hospital at the start, and among the mountain people. This allows Flynn to play to his remarkable charm.

Slick Magazines: the Credits

The credit sequence is designed to look like a magazine of the era. Specifically, a "slick" magazine, i.e., one printed on high quality, glazed paper. Such magazines were prestigious, and read in huge quantities by middle class readers, who could afford them. Their glazed "slick" paper supported lavish, full color illustrations. We see such illustrations in the credits, accompanying the novel in the magazine.

The credits link Green Light to the kinds of widely read, prestigious novels that were serialized in slick magazines. It definitely attempts to confer literary prestige on the film.

Big City

Taxi Wars

Big City (1937) is a drama about a taxi-cab war. Like Man's Castle, it is also a powerful drama about ordinary people trying to survive in the Great Depression.

The taxi-cab war recalls another metaphorical "war": that of the boys in No Greater Glory. (SPOILERS) Both wars have traitors; both have men who infiltrate the enemy's turf; both have observation posts (the room where Demarest watches the cab company); both have big fist-fight "battles".

I've seen reviews and plot synopses that describe Demarest and his crooks as "labor racketeers". This does not gibe at all with the actual plot of the film. Demarest and his thugs are hired by the manager of a big company, to serve as cab drivers in the firm. Their main mission, however, is to beat up the drivers and wreck the cabs of small, independent cabbies from other companies. Demarest is a thug, working for one company, to put its rivals out of business. He is NOT trying to infiltrate labor unions, or control union activities, or affect the treatment of labor in the big company or its rivals.

Racketeers like Demarest, were the frequent subject of exposes in MGM's film series Crime Does Not Pay. The crime plot aspects of Big City, can often seem like an large-scale episode of Crime Does Not Pay.


The heroine's brother, does try to infiltrate the big company. His motive: expose their corruption. The brother is one of several Borzage characters, who infiltrate institutions.

Living in Institutions

In some ways, all the taxi-cab drivers and their wives are living together. They share social events, and church services. They also stick together in solidarity. This is a political action: workers united.

But it is also one of Borzage's portraits, of life in a group institution.

The heroine is almost shared by the members of the group. She is like the Commander's wife in Flight Command: someone who affects the life of everyone in the group.

Street Angel is an earlier Borzage film, about a woman hunted unjustly by the police.


The purchase of the radio for the wife, recalls the husband's present of the stove in Man's Castle.

The remote push-button of the device, is fairly sophisticated technology for its era.


Mannequin (1938) looks at a woman's financial struggles in the Depression.


The heroine is afflicted with a lazy father and brother, who she has to support. Soon she also has a dysfunctional husband, who she supports too.

The heroine's situation is complicated by the fact that her father, mother and husband are all liars. She often does not know the truth. By contrast, her brother, however lazy, sarcastic and obnoxiously cocky, is a truth-teller, and often shrewd in his insights. This gives the brother a certain redeeming quality.

While the heroine apparently tries to be a loyal wife to her new husband, he keeps throwing her into quasi-romantic situations with rich guy Spencer Tracy. The husband is nearly pimping her, trying to use the heroine's allure to get an in with Tracy. In consequence, it is almost as if the wife has married two men, not one. She seems to be a shared wife, between her legal husband and Tracy. This will echo other Frank Borzage films, where a wife seems to be a First Lady or shared wife of a whole group of men. One thinks of the wife leading the Three Comrades, the heroine and all the taxi cab drivers in Big City, the Commander's wife in Flight Command who is a First Lady to all the men in the military unit. Those are all "respectable" relationships, though: without sex.


The heroine's father and brother are too lazy to work. The mother tries to defend the father, saying he can't find a job. The heroine will have none of this: she insists the father is lazy. It is clear that the film agrees: the father is shown as shiftless and worthless. (For an earlier example of this same situation see Shoes (Lois Weber, Philips Smalley, 1916).)

In 1937, finding work was still very difficult. It wasn't the bottom of the Depression, but prosperity was still a distant memory. The idea that the unemployed were just too lazy to work seems very wrong. This comes over as right-wing propaganda.


The heroine punches a time card, when she leaves the factory.

The elevator at Tracy's has an elaborate light display, indicating the floors. This makes for a vivid on-screen light effect - and also plays a role in the plot. Borzage devices often serve such a dual kinetic / story development role.

The elevator has a telephone. Like the burglar alarm in Man's Castle, it is a high tech communication device.

The heroine pauses in her dingy tenement staircase, to turn a light bulb so that it burns more brightly.

Circles and Architecture

Tracy's penthouse apartment is highly geometrical. It emphasizes circles: The penthouse wall is another glass walled building in Borzage. A ring of glass windows stands between the penthouse proper and its patio.

Circles and Food

The food platters are all circular, during the early meal with the heroine's family. This is not unusual, in either the movies or real life, of course. Still, it is consistent with Borzage's interest in circular containers for food.

Three Comrades

Three Comrades (1938) is a film taking place in 1920 Germany, after World War I.

The three heroes of the film are inseparable. Although the heroine marries one of them, she is really given emotional support by all three. She is another Frank Borzage heroine who is essentially the first lady of an institution: here the three comrades.

Three Comrades contains a number of Borzage's metaphorical "wars":


Three Comrades is full of technology, like other Borzage films, with the heroes piloting first a plane, then a taxi. A train also shows up, as does an X-Ray machine.

It is not fully clear what the technological device is, that the hero uses to burn the plane at the start. One suspects it is a flare.

Circles and Food

Three Comrades has that Borzage motif, circular containers for food:

Camera Movement

At the end, Borzage uses an overhead angle, to show the heroine getting out of bed, and moving across the room.

When the hero rushes across the sanitarium lobby, Borzage's camera follows him, and as he moves upstairs.


The heroes share one of Borzage's odd hats: a leather taxi driver's cap.

Earlier, the three men are in pilot's dress uniforms in the bar. Their uniform caps are unusually large and elaborate, with a tall cylindrical section making them higher, before their peaked top. They have not the typical black visor of many uniforms, but a color that might be brown or gray (it is hard to tell in the black-and-white photography). The shiny visor with its rich color attracts the eye. When their unsympathetic superior officer shows up, his cap has a traditional black visor, underscoring the unusual caps of the three heroes.

Much comedy is drawn from the hero's ill-fitting tail coat. This recalls the hero's comic problems with clothes in Lazybones.

The Mortal Storm

The Mortal Storm (1940) is a scathing early denunciation of the Nazis.


The Mortal Storm is one of many Frank Borzage films to have a scientist or engineer hero. Borzage is very much a pro-science director.

The Mortal Storm offer a ferocious look at the Nazi's anti-Science efforts. Like many radical movements, the Nazis attacked scientific truth. These aspects of the film are more relevant today than ever.

Camera Movement

Borzage's films vary drastically in how much camera movement they contain. The Mortal Storm is one Borzage film with plenty of camera movement.

There are some "path / reverse path" camera movements, where the camera goes down a path, and later moves back along the same path, but in a reverse direction. Please see my article for a list of examples

Flight Command

Men in Military Uniform

Flight Command (1940) is about US Naval Flyers. It is one of many Frank Borzage films about men in military uniform: 7th Heaven (1927), A Farewell to Arms (1932), Flirtation Walk (1934), Three Comrades (1938), The Mortal Storm (1940), Stage Door Canteen (1943), Till We Meet Again (1944), China Doll (1958). Borzage is clearly not always enthused about this. The sinister Nazi uniforms donned midway by the young German men in The Mortal Storm, make clear Borzage's reservations about the appeal of uniforms.

Living in Institutions

In Flight Command, being a member of the squadron takes over the characters' entire life. They have no identity outside of being a Hellcat, the name of their unit. They socialize and work as a group, wear uniforms constantly, and engage in group think, often sinister, as when they repeatedly reject the hero from admission to their organization.

Even when men are not in uniform in Borzage, they are often dealing with large scale institutions: the labor unions and businesses in Stranded (1935) and Mannequin (1938), the university in The Mortal Storm. People do not live alone in Borzage: they deal with complex institutions and large groups of people to perform their jobs.

And not just men. Especially in his later films, women's lives and work often puts them at the center of institutions: the USO-run hall in Stage Door Canteen, the convent in Till We Meet Again, and Dolly Madison's role as First Lady of the White House in Magnificent Doll (1946). Here in Flight Command, Ruth Hussey has to serve as essentially First Lady of the flight squadron, having a similar quasi-official role as The Skipper's Wife. All of this work is seen as terribly demanding. It causes emotional stress, and also requires major organizational skills, as well as a form of "public living in the world" that is most unusual. Hussey's marriage is no longer a private affair. Both Hussey's husband, and his men, demand that the marriage be shared with the whole unit, and subject to their demands and manipulations. In more comic ways, the canteen has strict rules governing how the women can interact with men in Stage Door Canteen. More sinister again under the surface, but more comic in superficial tone, is the complex way the sisters have to court as a group in Seven Sweethearts, and the way their father interferes in their love life - not a pretty picture. The most intimate details of women's romantic lives become part of some group institution in Borzage.

Institutions in Borzage have infiltrators: outsiders who come in, and try to change it. One thinks of the racketeers who work their way into the labor union in Stranded. And the way the Nazi Party invades the classroom and family of the professor in The Mortal Storm. Both of these infiltrators are evil to the core. By contrast, the hero of Flight Command is placed in the uncomfortable position of being seen as an infiltrator of the squad, by all its members. He is imposed on them against their will by naval higher-ups at the start of the picture. And the suspicion never really stops - he is never genuinely accepted as a member of the unit. Despite all of this, he is not trying to subvert the organization, the way other infiltrators in Borzage sometimes do.

Gay Relationships

Flight Command has a number of relationships that can be considered as gay. Jerry, the inventor of the fog device, is in love with the hero. Borzage has the two of them go into a tight close-up, with his camera moving in ever closer as Jerry moves more and more intensely near the hero. Jerry grabs the hero's lapels, in an intimate gesture. The tight face-to-face encounter is imagery that is usually reserved for romantic couples in films. His character recalls a bit the chef in History Is Made at Night, who is also in love with that film's hero.

The commander of the squad explains that the squad runs on the devotion of the men to their leader, himself, and the return way in which the leader is devoted to his men. Borzage does not completely approve of, or idealize this arrangement. The commander's wife clearly feels the attention she is getting from her husband is inadequate. He instead seems mainly concerned that she behave in a way that boosts the morale of his men. She exists as a support for the more important relationship in his life.

The commander's second in command, "Dusty" Rhodes, is totally devoted to his leader. We see Dusty dating at one point, but not very intimately. It is clear that his main personal interest in life is his commander. He intervenes in a truly odd way towards the end of the film, to protect, as he sees it, his commander's marriage.

In History Is Made at Night, the chef nearly dies at the end, trying to be loyal to his friend. Here, Jerry actually does die, due to his reckless disregard of safety as a test pilot. In general, while the love of the chef is seen as a wholly positive thing in History Is Made at Night, in Flight Command the gay relationships seem more problematical. While Jerry is a largely admirable person as an inventor that tries to improve humanity's life, he is also 1) part of a war effort 2) not in touch with the life force that allows people to survive and flourish in Borzage.


Jerry is trying to invent a device that will allow pilots to land in fog. It is seen as a form of light that will guide them. This is part of a series of light imagery in Borzage, such as the film Green Light. One also recalls the heroine's job in Stranded, where as a Traveler's Aide Society worker, she guides travelers who are lost - another symbolic image. John Belton points both kinds of symbolism out in his book The Hollywood Professionals Volume 3: Howard Hawks Frank Borzage Edgar G. Ulmer (1974).

In real-life, radar will actually be invented soon, so this film is talking accurately about the development of flight technology.

The invention work here recalls Stranded (1935). That film's hero is trying to build a thinly disguised version of the Golden Gate Bridge. Both films idealize men who work on large-scale, technology-oriented projects. However, the work on the bridge is a civilian effort, not a military one. And it is seen as wholly positive, creative and admirable by Borzage. While the fog-guidance invention here leads to its inventor's death. There are other differences, too. The engineer hero of Stranded is the leader of a large group of men, in a giant business enterprise of building the bridge. In this, he resembles Spencer Tracy's tycoon in Mannequin. Both men also share a hands-on, working man feel. By contrast, Jerry works in near complete isolation in Flight Command, with one assistant and the hero to help him. And he has an upper-middle class feel - he is definitely not a proletarian Man of the People.

The huge ship in History Is Made at Night is also a large scale technological object. And one which meets disaster, like many of the planes in Flight Command.

Danger in Flight

The naval squad in Flight Command has a truly terrible safety record! This is true of other movies about pilots, such as The Flying Fleet (George Roy Hill, 1929), Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939) and Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986), to name three films that seem the closest to Flight Command in approach - the first and last also being about elite US Naval aviators, who work in cutting-edge aviation in peace time, just as in Flight Command. Many of the men in Flight Command have nicknames, perhaps a precursor to the official flight-names the characters adopt in Top Gun. I have no idea if flying in real life is risky as these films make out, or whether it is exaggerated to pump up drama for the movies. All of these films, including Flight Command, have homoerotic subtexts.

Borzage had earlier made a film about a flyer whose compulsive recklessness ruined his life and marriage: Living on Velvet (1935). Both films depict danger as part of the emotional and psychological make-up of pilots. Both films have a deeply melancholy air.

Stage Door Canteen

A Love for the Theater

Stage Door Canteen (1943) is a look at the entertainment center in New York City, provided for servicemen during World War II by theater people. It contains several musical and stage numbers, by famous actors.

Obviously Stage Door Canteen is atypical of Frank Borzage's career, at least on the surface. Or is it? It has little to do with two of Borzage's principal themes, love and spirituality. But it has much to do with Borzage's reverence for work. The theater people in the film are all great artists and craftsmen. They are the kind of people he admired in film after film, people whose work is creative and meaningful. A good deal of a film might show their actual work. They often make things or build things or do services useful to others. It is a side of Borzage that needs to be brought to the surface.

Have never forgotten the young soldier's awe at his meeting with Katherine Cornell, and their reciting of Romeo and Juliet together. This scene encapsulates all the love for the theater many people have. It is a force as great and as sublime as cinephilia. Only Borzage could express such an interior spiritual force with such clarity and power. (My other favorite film about the love of theater: The Great Garrick (James Whale, 1937)).

Years ago read a writer. He was a reporter telling how in the 1940's he had been assigned by his city editor to be drama critic for his paper. He had no experience whatsoever. He had to see a large variety of plays. Most of them immediately bored him, in the first five minutes. It was clear that they were kinds of plays he would never voluntarily see on his own. But he had to see them through to the very end. To his amazement, many of the plays gradually got more interesting to him as they went along. After a half hour or so, he would gradually start taking an interest, and begin to understand the approach of the play. By the end of the evening, he was often deeply fascinated by what he saw. The experience of being a reviewer opened up a whole new world to him, that of the theater, and gave him a huge number of intellectual directions he had never considered before. He had a moral to this story: he was disturbed about how easy it was for people to change channels on the radio or TV, two minutes after the start of a show. He felt it often kept people trapped in a little world of narrow tastes, instead of exploring new things they would ultimately like.

Music Numbers

Also loved the music in this film, especially Gracie Fields singing The Lord's Prayer.

Have also seen a clip of an early Borzage talkie, Song O' My Heart (1930), with the great tenor John McCormack singing "Little Boy Blue". Such slow, delicately emotional numbers seem like a Borzage tradition. The tango "Adios Muchachos" in History Is Made at Night is also memorable.


Borzage's characters often have to fight their way through a crowd of people, literally pulled along by some moral force that is overwhelming: the blinded Chico making his way back to the heroine in 7th Heaven; Kay Francis fighting her way through the unhappy workers with a message for them in Stranded; the husband making his way into the restaurant at the end of Big City. Or the way all the soldiers shift to the other side of the train in Stage Door Canteen at the opening, so they can see women out the windows on one side.

Screen Directors Playhouse: Day Is Done

Day Is Done (1955) is the first of Frank Borzage's three episodes of the TV series Screen Directors Playhouse. It is a war drama. Borzage made many war dramas, and tales of men in uniform.

Links to Other Korean War Films

Day Is Done has some broad similarities in subject and characters with Retreat, Hell! (Joseph H. Lewis, 1952). Both: However, Day Is Done is very different from Retreat, Hell! in its main story or details. The concrete battles in the two films seem different as well: Retreat, Hell! seems to refer to the 1950 battle of Chosin Reservoir, while Day Is Done is set in June 1951. Day Is Done also depicts far fewer casualties and a more "normal" environment, than the disasters shown in Retreat, Hell!.